Don’t mention the war … and the rest: the trouble with bringing back Fawlty Towers

The essence of humour is surprise, according to that renowned comedy sage Immanuel Kant. So how humorous can it ever be when the TV shows of yesteryear, which many of us know inside out, are revived on stage? Last week’s announcement that three episodes of 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers are being fashioned into a West End play by their co-creator John Cleese followed the news that 90s sketch favourite The Fast Show is heading on tour to mark its 30th anniversary. Suits you, sir? I’m sure it suits the bank manager – but will it still tickle the funny bone?

I write as a battle-scarred veteran not only of Monty Python at the O2 10 years back, but more recent stage adaptations of The Good Life and Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em. What they made clear is that these theatrical jaunts down memory lane aren’t primarily about making us laugh. They’re about nostalgia, about reconnecting us with our younger selves. What you lose of the surprise on which comedy depends, you gain in the golden glow of recollection as simpler, more joyful times are spirited back to life. Outside, the world may be aflame and the culture wars raging, but in some corner of an English television, Frank Spencer will always be “ooh, Betty”ing down a banister, beret askew.

Then there’s the particular endorphin hit that comes, not just with hearing a punchline drop exactly how it should, but in joining in with it. This has very little to do with the usual laughter comedy supplies, the laughter of expectations upended. Here, we’re in the opposite territory, where the pleasure (“this is an ex-parrot!”, etc) is one of expectations tickled and fulfilled. And – at least when it’s the original performers assembled onstage – of proximity to those heroes who contributed all these characters and catchphrases to our imaginative landscape in the first place.

Potential to offend … John Cleese and Andrew Sachs. Photograph: PA

There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course, as long as we all admit – as the Pythons cheerfully did – that this is about happy memories and box office conservatism, and nothing to do with artistic adventure whatsoever. What might be interesting this time around, particularly given the involvement of Cleese, an outspoken opponent of so-called wokery and cancel culture, is whether these vintage favourites make any compromise with 21st-century values as they swing back into the spotlight.

There’s plenty of material in the Fawlty Towers episodes in question that might land clunkily with 2024 audiences. Even a free-speech warrior as strident as Cleese presumably accepts that the racial slurs deployed by the sitcom’s doddery old Major are beyond the pale. Some may jib at the mockery of a hard-of-hearing woman in Communication Problems – but her misunderstandings are key to the episode, and would be hard to cut. And what of Basil’s words to his hospital nurse, after a mounted moose falls on his head in The Germans? “My God, you’re ugly, aren’t you?” Can an audience of 2020s snowflakes possibly laugh when a man addresses a woman like that?

They probably can; the joke’s on Basil, after all. The boundaries of the sayable are certainly shifting these days, a process with implications for comedy. Ten years ago, when Monty Python was revived onstage, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw reported that “the campy jokes about men with silly effeminate voices and ladies’ underwear have dated”. According to some reports, Sacha Baron Cohen is planning to revive Ali G for a comedy tour. Were he to do so, the character may require some fine tuning. The Fast Show team, too, might look at one or two of theirs – at sexist car dealer Swiss Toni, say, comparing everything to “making love to a woman” – and wonder if the joke is funny any more.

The joke’s on him … Charlie Higson as Swiss Toni. Photograph: BBC

But they may well conclude: yes it is. If you deprived comedy of the right to be as rude as Basil Fawlty, or as chauvinist as Swiss Toni, or if you denied its audiences the right to laugh at rude, sexist or indeed hateful characters, you’d be cutting the art form off at the knees. But – contrary to what some anti-woke crusaders would have us believe – no one’s really asking for that to happen. Most people, I’d guess – including the audiences pursued by Fawlty Towers and The Fast Show – support the idea that, if we can avoid upsetting people gratuitously, we should do so. But they probably also agree with Cleese when he argues that we “don’t want to run society according to the sensitivities of the people who are most easily upset”.

I’m sure that, give or take their most outdated excesses, Fawlty Towers and The Fast Show will both reach the stage sufficiently intact to delight fans and nostalgists. Whether either is surprising enough to divert a new generation of comedy fans is quite another matter.

The Guardian